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Who is America and the Ethics of Going Undercover


by: Larry Atkins on September 14th, 2018 | 3 Comments »

Actor Sacha Baron Cohen (image courtesy of Joella Marano)

As a liberal, I’m glad to see Sacha Baron Cohen expose the corruption, hatred, craziness, and racism of many conservative NRA loving politicians and people. For example, Cohen enticed a Republican Georgia state representative, Jason Spencer, to yell the full N-word and pull down his pants to expose his naked butt to try to repel a hypothetical Muslim terrorist. Spencer eventually resigned due to the incident.

At first, I was really excited about the show and urged my fellow liberal friends to watch Cohen’s Showtime program “Who is America?” I thought it was really funny and it showed how dumb, gullible, and scary these conservatives were.

While Cohen’s exposing these true feelings are valuable, his undercover and deceptive techniques are disturbing. Basically, he is engaging in entrapping people to participate in idiotic made up situations and conversations that make them look bad. This is nothing new for Cohen, who has used his various characters, including Borat, Bruno, and Ali G to embarrass and expose people. In his current show, he has duped, among others, Dick Cheney, who gleefully signed a waterboarding kit, several Republican politicians who were duped into talking positively about a made up proposal to arm kindergartners with guns to defend against school shootings, Roy Moore, who tested positive to Cohen’s fake pedophile detector, and several dozen citizens at a town meeting in Kingman, Arizona, who responded to a fake proposed giant mosque in town with angry bigoted responses. While Cohen does target all types of people, his main focus has been on Republicans and conservatives.

There is a long history of using undercover techniques in entertainment, journalism, and advocacy. Past television shows using these techniques include Candid Camera, Undercover Boss, To Catch a Predator, Mystery Diners, Celebrity Undercover, Cheaters, Impractical Jokers, Punk’d, The Real Wedding Crashers, and What Would You Do?

Undercover journalism has a long history. Nellie Bly exposed the horrors of mental hospital institutions in the late 19th century by posing as an insane inmate in an asylum. Many local televisions stations use undercover reporters to expose corruption by government officials and others. This technique can be used as a tool to expose societal ills, but it should be used rarely and carefully. For instance, there was a chilling effect on this type of journalism after the Food Lion v. ABC case, which found ABC liable for trespass and breach of loyalty for having its producers lie on job applications to expose unhealthy practices.

Conservatives have used this technique as well. The most famous incident was when two conservative activists, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and a prostitute to entice ACORN employees to give them illegal tax advice for their made up business of smuggling young women into the United States to work as prostitutes. Their work was published by Breitbart and they became conservative icons to their supporters for exposing a liberal organization, but to their detractors, they brought down an important and valuable organization that engaged in community organizing and voter registration. In subsequent years, O’Keefe tried to engage in sting operations against the Washington Post, a George Soros backed group, CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau, and U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu.

A few years ago, two pro-life activists, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, released undercover videos accusing Planned Parenthood doctors of selling aborted fetal tissue. The heavily edited videos caused national outrage and led to threats against abortion providers. They filmed 14 people without their consent at meetings with women’s healthcare providers in four cities and published the videos on the website for the Center for Medical Progress. In 2017, they were charged with 15 felonies by California prosecutors.

These undercover sting videos are often cleverly edited in a deceptive manner and don’t show the entire context of what took place.

My own hunch is that people like to see undercover journalism, entertainment, and activism if it confirms their own beliefs and values and exposes others that they dislike or disagree with. They don’t like it and label it as “Gotcha” techniques if it exposes and embarrasses people and organizations that they like. One group’s muckraker or hero can be seen by others as a hack and a charlatan.

Liberals like me were critical of the ACORN sting and other similar deceptive incidents that attacked liberal institutions. While it’s tempting to revel in Sacha Baron Cohen’s exposure of the dark side of conservatives, we shouldn’t encourage the deceptive techniques that he used to get his information, results, and behavior. What goes around comes around. In the future, we’re likely to see more conservative citizen journalists/advocates/provocateurs like James O’Keefe who will set out to entrap and embarrass liberal democrats and organizations through deceptive measures. Will we embrace these undercover efforts as much as we do Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America? Probably not.

Larry Atkins is the author of Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias (Prometheus Books). He teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. Twitter: @larryatkins4

The Politicization of Murder in the U.S. and U.K.


by: Frankie Wallace on September 12th, 2018 | No Comments »

Image courtesy of Will H. Mcmahan.

For decades, politicians around the world have used the brutal murders of others as political bait, reeling in audiences over their heartbreaking stories of senseless killings. But political figures have primarily used this tactic to push their anti-immigrant views. No matter which side you take on this issue, is it really right in the first place to politicize someone’s murder for political gain? Politicians have been accused of doing so on both sides of the aisle, from any political party. Often they don’t take into account how this affects the families of the victims and how immigrants feel to be generalized in such a negative way.

Donald Trump and the Right
President Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda is nothing new. From the day he announced his intention to run for president, he painted a violent image of undocumented immigrants and made immigration reform a key topic of discussion during the campaign. Yet in recent weeks, his anti-immigrant sentiment came back into the fold, again presenting illegal immigrants as sick and evil individuals. This came with the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old college student from the University of Iowa. Christian Rivera, an undocumented immigrant, confessed to killing Tibbetts and led police to her dead body.


A Permaculture for Plants and People


by: Hannah Arin on August 31st, 2018 | No Comments »

Elizabeth at Shanti Permaculture Farm by Vinnie the Guy

I took a drive with Elizabeth one of my first days at Shanti Permaculture Farm. We hopped in her grey GMC truck, with raccoon prints on the front window and her two field spaniels curled up in the back and headed for the farm supply store. We wove through the idyllic vineyards and redwoods of Northern California, windows down, tires barely matching the road’s edge. It was one of those rare occurrences in which someone says, “great weather we’re having,” and you can feel, deep in your bones, like wind brushing through pores, that they really mean it. My heart opened. Here was Elizabeth, saying to me the same phrase I’d heard all my life, a phrase which had become nothing more than the white noise of a suburban leaf blower, and returning it to the wind– returning the words to their purpose: to mean what they say.

I’d noticed this about Elizabeth from the moment I met her: they way in which she allows things to breathe their own essence into life. As the owner of a juvenile (3 or 4 years in the making) permaculture/sheep/duck/chicken/singular llama, farm, you’d think she’d have a more set structure to things: a plan for getting from point a to point b, a road set in concrete. And undoubtedly, Elizabeth does have a plan. She’s a woman with a will as stiff as the soil she’s rehabilitating: a woman with a purpose.

Yet the way in which she manifests this purpose is far from the black and white, step one to step two, brick by brick, path to success defined by a system overrun with way points: graduate high school, graduate college, maybe professional school, get a job, find a partner, have children, and so on. It’s a way as different as a weather man, speaking of the weather forecast with the same intonation he would use for a school shooting, is from Elizabeth, sticking her arm outside her truck’s window, looking over fields of sunshine made form, uttering “great weather we’re having,” with a way as simple and strong as the breeze.


PINK Armenia: Some Personal Reflections


by: Paul von Blum on August 27th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Sara Rampazzo

In two recent trips to Armenia, I had the privilege of visiting the headquarters of PINK Armenia in Yerevan and talking to many of the people involved with this courageous human rights organization. PINK (Public Information and Need of Knowledge) Armenia is a NGO dedicated to serving the LGBT community in Armenia. It has taken the lead in publicizing the plight and protecting the rights of women and men who, tragically, have been subject to ostracism, persecution, and even physical violence.

Armenia is a young and vibrant democracy. Recently, the Armenian people rose up and peacefully overthrew the corrupt government of Serzh Sargsyan and replaced him with Nikol Pahsinyan in a Velvet Revolution. The new Prime Minister promised to address the rampant disparity of wealth and power and many other serious problems. The prognosis is good but guarded; it is far from easy to change such deep-seated problems as corruption and economic domination by predatory oligarchs.

Deeper social change is even more difficult. The issue of homophobia remains extremely troubling. Armenia, like its neighbors Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Georgia, has extremely conservative values about sexuality. Fueled by religious orthodoxy and entrenched social convention, LGBT people have an extremely difficult time if they are open about their sexual orientation in these areas.

PINK Armenia has systematically documented the discrimination against Armenian citizens whose sexual orientation differs from that of the majority of the population. In 2016, it published a report entitled “Hate Crimes and Other Motivated Incidents Against LGBT People in Armenia.” Its findings are both unsurprising and depressing. The report revealed substantial examples of hate crimes against LGBT people; moreover, many gays and lesbians often hide their sexual orientations in order to avoid discrimination and violence and others decide not to report hate crimes. The reported figures are therefore lower than what actually occurs.


What is Soul? The Artistry of Aretha Franklin


by: on August 26th, 2018 | No Comments »

In 1970, the P-Funk music group Funkadelic asked the question: What is soul? There answer was “I don’t know.” Then they made some suggestions: ham hocks in corn flakes, bathtub ring, a joint rolled in toilet paper; rusty ankles and ashy kneecaps, chitlins foo yung, woman, and funk.
What is soul?
Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, defined it: “Soul to me is a feeling a lot of depth and being able to bring to the surface that which is happening inside, to make the picture clear. Many people can have soul. It’s just the emotion and the way it affects people.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/aretha-franklin-musics-queen-of-soul-dies-at-76/2018/08/16/c35de4b8-9e9f-11e8-83d2-70203b8d7b44_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ee707280b8c8)
What is soul?
I say that soul is a holistic spirituality that “understands that our spiritual person is at once connected with divine transcendence, with the Source, with Divine Love, and it is connected with our fellow human beings, animals, the natural world and all of creation. The spirit also takes us deeper into ourselves. It is the wellspring of emotion. It is the source of our intuitive insights. It celebrates and it mourns. It is within and beyond reason, mind and body. The spiritual self longs to understand itself within the context of ultimate reality and ultimate meaning” (“Just Peace Theory Book One” xxxii). Soul is body, mind and spirit moving through the world in harmony and cohesion.
What is soul?
Soul is, in the words of Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon “Thinking with our hearts; feeling with our brains.” (https://vimeo.com/239890586)
Dr. Cannon taught her students that it is more than a mistake to do our work as if the head and the heart were separate parts of our being. To try to separate thinking and feeling is a violation of our humanity. Soul makes no such violation. Head and heart come together to understand the logic of our emotions and to think with feeling, joy, passion, inspiration, and sensitivity.
Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul because she made our feelings sensible and our thinking passionate. Her voice was a divine force that brought Holy Spirit into our sacred and secular lives if such distinctions even make sense within a holistic conception of self. For those who have ears to hear, we can hear echoes of the field hollers in Aretha Franklin’s singing and we can hear the Holy Ghost shouts that come when the sweet sweet Spirit of God enters into a worship service.
When Aretha sang, she was not present to the music to serve the notes and the words of a particular song. The words and music of the song were there to serve her task of communication and demonstration of the human emotion that the song could convey. She became a conduit of Holy Spirit. Her singing provided a moment of transcendence, and this is why her music made multiple levels of meaning available to us. For example: she took the song “Respect” written by Otis Redding about a man coming home to a wife and asking for “just a little respect” in return for handing over his paycheck and turned it into a feminist and civil rights anthem. The truth that came from her rendition emerged from the depths of her being, from her thinking feeling heart/mind, from her humanity to say that respect is something that every human beings not only wants, but deserves. The song is at once sexual and political. It is a cry for recognition and a demand.
For the fiftieth anniversary of the song, “Respect”, Essence Magazine published a commemorative edition that it has now reissued. In the commemoration, African-American women write about the song’s significance. In her essay – “The Song” – Diane McKinney-Whetstone writes: “With her sister Carolyn and Erma singing, ‘Sock it to me’ in the background and Aretha herself going to church on the piano, she offered up a voice that is both of this world and holy. It has astounding range and an ability to engage, head, heart and soul in a transcendent swirl” (10).
In her essay – “The Icon” – Farrah Jasmine Griffin writes about how Aretha Franklin’s music was the music of black people: “Steeped in the black church but also fluent in the jazz idiom, Aretha put Black genius on full display. And she didn’t do it in the rarified confines of classical music. She did it in R&B and soul, the music of the people. The song echoed from windows and cars, in clubs and on basketball courts. When it was released, she was only 25 years old, but her voice carried and extended an entire tradition of Black singing: the field holler and the spiritual, the blues moans, gospel shouts and jazz improvisations. Bessie, Mahalia and Dinah as well as Sara and Ella. Aretha is their heir” (34).
Aretha Franklin’s music made an impact on individual people’s lives. Writing -”The Impact” – Ylonda Gault says: “Mama taught me many things: God don’t like ugly. Be your own best friend. And never -ever – let anybody play you close. Today that sounds trite, a no brainer. But in the late 1960′s – as a newfound spirit of Black militancy began to emerge from the ashes of Martin, Malcom and Medgar – in many ways, a sister’s outspoken indignation was a revolutionary act in itself. In 1967 Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” simply set Mama’s smoldering vexation – with her husband, with her assembly-line foreman, with her life – to music” (68).
Similarly, when Aretha recorded “Natural Woman” in 1967, a song written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, it became a hit and one her iconic songs. The song makes no sense to me since I consider myself an existential feminist/womanist who is suspicious of the notion of a singular natural woman. I say and say again that I agree with Simone de Beauvoir that women are made and not born. There are so many different ways to be an authentic woman in this world or to be a female who wants to move beyond such thinking altogether. We live in a time when gender nonconformity is acceptable.
Further, in the event that I have defined for myself what kind of “natural” woman I want to be, I would certainly not put the power of me feeling like the natural woman that I am to be in human hands. Such would give far too much power to another person. However, the logic of the emotion with which Aretha Franklin sings the song, transcends a human relationship. I am the “natural” woman that God, Divine Love, the Source created me to be and it is that Love that makes me feel like a natural woman.


By Our Dreams Will You Know Us: Impeachment Edition


by: on August 23rd, 2018 | No Comments »

“In dreams begin responsibilities,” wrote the poet Delmore Schwartz. What do our dreams reveal about our responsibilities to the body politic?

Everyone I know is ecstatic that two individuals have been definitively revealed as guilty of serious criminal action in direct service to the Present Occupant of the White House. As Michael Cohen’s attorney said, “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”

The New York Times editorial sums it up nicely and links to the relevant details. Many experts are weighing in to say the grounds for impeachment have been met. There is powerful organizing to impeach this shameful excuse for a president: By The People is well worth following and supporting. You can find a recording of their latest online orientation on Facebook Live.

Impeachment is my dream. Or better yet, the speedier option of a Nixon-style resignation to avoid a long impeachment process. Frank Bruni dreams of Melania Trump as an undercover heroine.

What’s your dream?

This question of our dreams against the depredations of the state has engaged me for decades, ever since I read Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, which braided personal and collective politics in an exciting way, new and complex and deep. The main character, Anna Wulf, works with the British Communist Party. In one of the four notebooks that make up the bulk of the novel, she records a dream she has heard recounted by fellow communists. Here’s how I summarized it in “Our Dreams and the President’s,” an essay published almost exactly 13 years ago (it’s short and I have an idea you may want to read the whole thing):

In The Golden Notebook, her masterpiece of disillusionment, Doris Lessing wrote about the dream of a fellow stalwart of the British Communist Party. The book was published half a dozen years after Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations to the 20th party congress in 1956 of Stalin’s terrible crimes. In the party worker’s fantasy, he goes to Russia, and is called from his hotel to see Comrade Stalin at the Kremlin. The Stalin he meets is a modest and humble man who asks for news of the British labor movement. The visitor, flattered beyond bearing, does his best. Stalin responds with kindly and helpful advice, then returns to his ceaseless labors.

I thought of this yesterday when a friend called long-distance to share her dream, that George Bush had been awakened from his complacency by the events following Hurricane Katrina, and had declared his intention to make t’shuvah (to use the Hebrew term), to turn away from distortion toward healing, to make things right.

I have no love for George Bush, but evidently even he has some shred of conscience, having been moved by our national shame to speak out against this president’s policies.

The point is that even with respect to someone as clueless and corruptible as Bush, people were able to dream of awakening and redemption. Of course, these dreams—whether of Stalin or Bush—did not come true. But it says a great deal about how things have changed that I have not heard a single person share the fantasy that the Present Occupant of the White House will awaken to the harm of his actions and enter the process of t’shuvah—redemption, repentance, reorientation—to transform his presidency.

As he seems unredeemable, even in dreams the body politic has to expel him. Impeachment or resignation are the sweet dreams. All the rest are nightmares.

In Ulysses, James Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus says, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The legacy of our collective history weighs heavily in this moment: an Electoral College put in place to prevent direct democracy and protect slavery states; a money-driven electoral system that supports victory by the highest bidder; a Republican Party that enriches the wealthiest and treats the planet as expendable as it actively campaigns to suppress voting by people of color; a Democratic Party that seeks funding from fossil-fuel corporations, reinforcing our shameful corpocracy…. I’ll stop there. This system doesn’t allow us to impeach a president for willful stupidity, nauseating cupidity, or the other crimes of character so evident in every day’s news coverage. Even if it did, the foundation of honor among thieves is fear of exposing oneself, and I don’t see too many of the elected officials benefiting from the current system willing to risk their own cozy turpitude by speaking out.

So it’s up to We The People. We still have absolute power to break the chain of causality, stepping off this undemocratic, mercenary, and venal path. For some reason, I stopped asking the three questions that for years were my watchword. I think it’s time to revive them:

Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?

As the people who finally drew the line and made the dream of impeachment real.

“Politician,” performed by Los Lobos.

When Two Truths Collide, Part Two: Can You See Yourself as The Accused?


by: on August 17th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Something in our body politic is troubling me. I do not think it is possible to have a just society without understanding that every member of society bears the same potential to harm or heal. I do not think we can have just laws and processes without imagining how we would ourselves be treated as either the accuser of wrongdoing or the accused. Yet I hear so many people exempting themselves from these deep truths, advocating positions conditioned on understanding their own virtue as unimpeachable, on seeing themselves as incapable of serious wrongdoing.

The antidote I think we need is perspective, the ability to see our own virtue, accomplishments, or status as subject to change, to braid empathy and imagination with justice.

A few days ago, I wrote about conflicting views of how best to respond to abuse charges leveled against a respected person. As a case-in-point, I explored progressive responses to the charge that Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison had abused his former partner, Karen Monahan. Since then Ellison has won the Democratic nomination for state Attorney General. It remains to be seen how whatever unfolds will affect both him and Monahan, but whatever happens, that won’t end the discussion. I could have picked a different example in which any man long regarded as dedicated to equity and justice is publicly charged with abuse. The choice is appallingly plentiful, the debate ongoing.

To reduce the two perspectives I discussed to a few words, I’d characterize them as “Believe Women. Period,” leading to immediate calls for the accused to step down; or “Investigate Before Action,” in which charges are taken seriously, but the call for punishment is conditioned on obtaining full information.


The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two: Can Fear Motivate Love?


by: Robin Kopf on August 14th, 2018 | No Comments »

The first season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale seemed like it couldn’t come at a more topical time. It fell within the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, when there were so many startling headlines that season one felt like a not-so-distant future. Season two, which started streaming on Hulu in late April of this year, came at a time with just as many startling headlines, but a growing numbness to the political turmoil that seems to keep worsening. By comparison to the first season, the following season is darker, scarier and more unbelievably twisted, as it moves past the universe building and plot points that make up Margaret Atwood’s book (from which the show came), continuing the character and plot development past its conclusion.

The first season’s addictive qualities come from the horror of seeing this universe play out on screen, but also from flashbacks to the period before Gilead (the extremist and patriarchal republic that replaces the United States) that look all too familiar. Season two’s fear factor is in the expansion of this universe, but also in the use of images in the linear time of the show that continue to exist in our history books, in the news, and in real life. We see June being guided in her passage to Canada. We see handmaids and others (spoiler ahead) with missing hands, fingers, and eyes. These familiar and fearful images that are used to speculate a world that oppresses most of the population, especially women, make it clear that the goal of The Handmaid’s Tale as a whole, but particularly the second season, is to beg its viewers to not let this world become a reality. Still, there are glimmers of hope within acts of true selflessness and kindness from citizens of the dystopia that tell viewers that the show’s characters are based on reality; not everyone is inherently evil and if there is a way into this hellish reality, there is a way out.


When Two Truths Collide


by: on August 14th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Minnesota holds primary elections today. One of the most prominent candidates is 11-year congressional veteran Rep. Keith Ellison, running for state Attorney General. A few days ago, first the son of a former partner and then the partner herself, Karen Monahan, accused Ellison of “narcissist abuse,” a term that has come into use fairly recently to describe a pattern of emotional manipulation and bullying in which someone pressures another to ignore one’s own needs to satisfy those of the narcissist, for example. Ellison has denied the charge. Here’s a quick recap.

The charges have ignited a passionate debate among progressives. Many people like Ellison, who has taken consistently progressive positions on issues and who, as the first Muslim elected to Congress, has withstood considerable personal attack himself. So the first contested point is whether the good done by someone accused of bad acts ought to weigh in the balance of judgment.

On one side is a civil libertarian argument that counsels bringing the same commitment to the presumption of innocence that shapes legal proceedings to the court of public opinion. The controversy comes with a raft of text messages and tweets made public by Monahan, some of which allude to a damning video which so far, no one has seen. These voices say that no one should be condemned purely on another’s say-so, that false accusations are possible and to avoid harm, all accusations should be investigated before a determination of culpability and punishment can rightfully be made.


For Katie Geneva Cannon Let Them See Your Tears


by: on August 10th, 2018 | 4 Comments »

When a human being dedicates her life to the sustenance and joy of humankind, when she works with a will for justice and for the moral evolution of humankind, when she dies, it is fitting to pay tribute. This is nothing new for me, I think that works of mourning, acts of mourning keep us grounded and connected to a reality that life on this earth, in this delicate human flesh is fragile and fleeting and over far too soon. We all live moment by moment. We cannot take tomorrow for granted, and a life well lived is a work of art.

The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary, the first African-American woman ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the first African-American woman to chair the dissertation committee of another African-American woman in religious studies, a pioneer of womanist thought, a towering figure in theological ethics, my own teacher, mentor, sister and friend has died. (https://www.upsem.edu/newsroom/professor-katie-cannon-first-black-woman-ordained-in-pcusa-dies-at-68/)

This for me is personal.

There is much that I could write about her scholarship and her pedagogies that have influenced a generation of scholars, teachers and preachers. We will be writing essays about her thought in the areas of ethics, homiletics, teaching and learning for years to come. There will be much to say about her concepts of unctuousness and her thinking regarding “ethosfacts” in her application of archaeological methods in the field of social ethics. We will be dancing the dance of redemption that she adopted and adapted from her teacher Beverly Wildung Harrison, made her own, and passed on to us for our own adoption and adaptation. We will make her thinking regarding the work of sociologist Oliver Cox part of a womanist peace theory. And we will, through her spirit, continue to “debunk seamless histories; . . .unmask the deadly onslaught of stultifying intellectual mystification; . . . and disentangle the ordinary absence of women of color in whole bodies of literature.” (Katie G. Cannon “Structured Academic Amnesia” in “Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society.”)

This, however, is personal.

There is an old saying that when the student in ready, the teacher will appear. That was the case with Dr. Cannon and me. I first met her at a Society of Christian Ethics meeting in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. She was already a star. I was just starting work on my PhD in Religion at Temple University, not exactly sure whether the academy and I would make a good fit, especially when it came to academic writing. I was trained in journalism and had worked in both print and radio. I was trained to write in a clear, concise and if possible entertaining style. Academic writing was abstruse and turgid. Why use a simple word or sentence when a complex paragraph will do?

Much of the discourse I heard at the conference was over my head, and I was not certain whether people really knew what they were talking about or if the difficult language was an obfuscation to cover up intellectual uncertainties and insecurities. I remember that she and I had a short conversation in the lobby of the hotel near the end of the conference. I do not remember how the conversation started. I probably saw her and walked up to her and started the conversation. As a journalist, I am not shy about approaching total strangers, introducing myself and starting a conversation. I do not remember much of what we said, but I do remember that she asked me what I was interested in studying and that she listen very carefully. She gave me her complete attention. After I had answered her question, she encouraged me to continue my studies. She thought that my intellectual project was worthwhile. I never questioned whether or not I ought to work toward the PhD after that conversation.